What Is "Kubla Khan" by Coleridge Actually About?

Updated on November 24, 2017
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Poet, blogger, college professor, literature, and film enthusiast. Excited about critical and creative writing. Pursuing a Ph.D. in English.

Kubla Khan: A Poem About Choices

Kubla Khan by S.T.Coleridge is a poem that has been interpreted in a thousand different ways. Critics have analysed every word and every line only to make the readers more confused about the real message of the poem.

Yes, there is a simple straightforward message right on our faces which we tend to lose sight of in the mazy patterns that the critics have drawn down the ages.

The poem is simply about choices that a poet needs to make, choices regarding which mode of creativity to embrace.

Let us look at three lines from the poem:

1. So twice five miles of fertile ground

With walls and towers were girdled round;

2. And on her dulcimer she played,

Singing of Mount Abora.

3. Could I revive within me

Her symphony and song,

A look at the lines above makes a clear statement. Kubla Khan attempted to create a man-made paradise at the cost of natural beauty, by restrictive actions. The damsel with a dulcimer made music by her empathy with nature. For a romantic poet like Coleridge, the choice was clear. He wished his creativity to be like that of the damsel by embracing nature and not disrupting it.

Coleridge deliberately makes the stanzaic divisions to point out the two modes of creativity available to man. A close look at the individual images and symbols helps to understand his message even further. What is important is that we should not lose focus from his main idea by getting lost in the multitudinous metaphors and imagery.

Stanza I: Setting the Tone of Duality

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

A stately pleasure-dome decree:

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran

Through caverns measureless to man

Down to a sunless sea.

So twice five miles of fertile ground

With walls and towers were girdled round;

And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,

Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;

And here were forests ancient as the hills,

Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

In the first stanza, Coleridge paints a picture of an imaginative setting. He uses contrasting statements such as “measureless to man” and “twice five miles…”, “gardens” and “forests”, to establish the idea of duality. It becomes evident from the very onset of the poem that Kubla Khan’s efforts are contrary to the unrestricted forces of nature. One might argue that Kubla is a metaphor of human force, almost Promethean in his open challenge to defy the established laws. However, the way Coleridge portrays him does not present a very heroic stature. A man who attempts to build a castle on fertile land hardly qualifies as a prudent man. His attempt is only founded on his arrogant ambition to build an immortal creation that would stand the test of time.

Such an instinct was found in Ozymandius as well, whom Shelley portrayed in his poem “Ozymandius” as a vain autocratic ruler, whose desire to immortalize himself through his sculpture is pathetically countered by the overpowering forces of nature.

Kublai Khan: The Dominant Autocrat in Coleridge's Poem

Kublai was the fifth Khagan (Great Khan) of the Mongol Empire, reigning from 1260 to 1294.He established the Yuan dynasty, which ruled over present-day Mongolia, China, Korea, and some adjacent areas, and assumed the role of Emperor of China.
Kublai was the fifth Khagan (Great Khan) of the Mongol Empire, reigning from 1260 to 1294.He established the Yuan dynasty, which ruled over present-day Mongolia, China, Korea, and some adjacent areas, and assumed the role of Emperor of China. | Source

Stanza II: Of Myths and Metaphors

In Coleridge’s poem, the paradisal palace that Kubla wished to build is doomed from its very conception. This is understood best if we go through the second stanza of the poem:

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted

Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!

A savage place! as holy and enchanted

As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted

By woman wailing for her demon-lover!

And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,

As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,

A mighty fountain momently was forced:

Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst

Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,

Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:

And mid these dancing rocks at once and ever

It flung up momently the sacred river.

Five miles meandering with a mazy motion

Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,

Then reached the caverns measureless to man,

And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean;

And ’mid this tumult Kubla heard from far

Ancestral voices prophesying war!

The shadow of the dome of pleasure

Floated midway on the waves;

Where was heard the mingled measure

From the fountain and the caves.

It was a miracle of rare device,

A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

When we look at the expressions “ ceaseless turmoil”, “fast thick pants”, “half-intermittent burst”, “thresher’s flail”, we get an impression of a violent reaction by nature. Added to this there are auditory imagery of a “wailing woman” and “ancestral voices prophesying war”.

Who is this wailing woman? Who is her demon lover? Why is there a fountain?

Let us allow ourselves a little digression.

Let us go back to the classical mythology about Isis, Osiris and Typhon. They were siblings. However, Isis and Osiris loved each other. Typhon desired Isis for himself and was envious of Osiris. Typhon tried to destroy Osiris and chopped him off into ten pieces and scattered him around the universe. Isis, being the goddess of healing tried to collect the fragments to join them up again. However, all she could find were nine pieces (the nine planets perhaps!) and is still searching for that tenth piece. It is fabled that once she gets hold of all the fragments, the universe will become a paradise once more where every person will be united with their soulmate.

To come back to the poem, there is an echo of this yearning of Isis in the wailing woman, whose demon lover (Osiris) was never to be found. The fountain, violent and destructive as Typhon can offer no peace but only eruptions of hatred. Within such a setting, Kubla Khan’s human efforts get scaled down to insignificance. The shadow of his palace is not a stable one. The floating shadow is only an ominous prophecy of the palace’s eventual destruction. This is further accentuated by the voices of Kubla’s ancestors who warn him of his doom.

River, being a masculine symbol and caves being the feminine counterparts, become the dual agents of dialectic creativity. Coleridge continues to make use of dual-images as in “holy” and “haunted”, and “sunny” and “ice”. The duality accentuates the impossibility of sustenance. Kubla’s dome, possibly made of white marble, is not about sunny life but cold lifelessness.

It is with this idea that we come to the third stanza of the poem:

Isis: The archetypal symbol of yearning and loss
Isis: The archetypal symbol of yearning and loss | Source

Stanza III: The Damsel and the Madman

A damsel with a dulcimer

In a vision once I saw:

It was an Abyssinian maid

And on her dulcimer she played,

Singing of Mount Abora.

Could I revive within me

Her symphony and song,

To such a deep delight ’twould win me,

That with music loud and long,

I would build that dome in air,

That sunny dome! those caves of ice!

And all who heard should see them there,

And all should cry, Beware! Beware!

His flashing eyes, his floating hair!

Weave a circle round him thrice,

And close your eyes with holy dread

For he on honey-dew hath fed,

And drunk the milk of Paradise.

With the third stanza, Coleridge makes a complete departure from the haunted ominous landscape to an image of fertile creativity. The Abyssinian maid becomes an agent of peaceful coexistence with nature. Her song is in harmony with Mount Abora, (often linked to Mount Amara or the Mountain of Sun). The figure of a woman playing on a stringed instrument has its oriental echoes and has connections with the Hindu Goddess of Knowledge and music, Saraswati. Coleridge was aware of these parallel mythologies and cultural tropes. However, even if we do not engage in any detailed study of the possible sources of the image, we can still understand that the image is one of celebration of nature.

Saraswati: The Hindu Divine Muse of Creativity is very much like the image of the damsel portrayed by Coleridge, especially with her "Veena", a musical instrument similar to the dulcimer
Saraswati: The Hindu Divine Muse of Creativity is very much like the image of the damsel portrayed by Coleridge, especially with her "Veena", a musical instrument similar to the dulcimer

The Central Idea

Whom does Coleridge choose to be his muse? The damsel of course. This is because, the music of the damsel has the permanence that is denied to Kubla’s castle. Once he is inspired by her music, Coleridge hoped to be as potent and permanent in his creativity as the girl singing on the mountain top. “I would build that dome in air”, his ambition is moderated by his humility. He does not want to be the arrogant autocrat, destined to annihilation, but wishes to be inspired to a higher level of awareness.

The final image of the madman is an image of an inspired poet. It is indeed true that Coleridge’s verse has stood the test of time. The palace built by Kubla is no more, but Coleridge’s poem would survive for a greater span of time. He could indeed build the dome in air, for his readers who can see that haunted place and hear its ominous music. Such fine lines did the immortal bard write about the creative mind of the poet:

The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
...
The poet's eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.”

(― William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream)

Kubla Khan is then, not about disarranged images, disjointed ramblings of an opium induced mind, but a clear statement about what poetic creativity aims at. Coleridge’s poem is not a fragment but the crux of his theory of imagination. The madman is nothing but a creative consciousness which has ascended from the level of primary imagination to the secondary.

Dionysus: The Classical God of Creativity, inspired by frenzy, the frenzy of poetic creation
Dionysus: The Classical God of Creativity, inspired by frenzy, the frenzy of poetic creation

© 2017 Monami

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      Dr. Mausumi Sen Bhattacharjee 

      7 months ago

      Quite well analysed.

      The image of Saraswati gives it a unique flair. Thank you.

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